The trouble with AGMs

I’ve always been miffed by pipe band associations’ annual general meetings. They’re of course a necessary thing. Every formal organization with bylaws and legalities and such-like are required to hold AGMs, but there’s something really out-of-whack with AGMs for many piping and drumming organizations.

For a start, it’s music. Music and politics are incompatible bedfellows, and politics pretty much are the source of all piping and drumming unhappiness, whether it’s alleged “political” decisions rendered by judges, or the “politics” within a pipe band, or simply the administrative side of organized competition. Most of us simply want to play or listen to music, and, for the most part, the political administration of piping and drumming associations is left to others.

As evidenced by the typical five per cent turnout of members at most AGMs, we dislike these things more than massed bands in a downpour. AGMs are held in the off-season, when the last thing we want to do is drive for miles on a Saturday when we’d rather be doing . . . anything else.

But AGMs can have a profound impact on our happiness as competitors and players. The problem is that every association I know of uses AGMs to vote on motions to change rules and policies – matters that frequently determine the structure of our events, what we play, how we play it, and how they’re judged. To say that association members are apathetic or lazy for not attending AGMs is unfair. We all care deeply; we choose instead to just cross our fingers and hope that whoever actually attends doesn’t do anything too stupid.

The difference today is we no longer expect to have to attend these meetings in-person. Since the 1990s, video conferencing and electronic voting have been easy and increasingly less expensive to set up, especially for fairly small organizations, which is what piping and drumming associations really are. Yet many associations are woefully behind when it comes to making use of technology and modern communications to reach out to members.

For today’s piping and drumming associations, here’s a checklist to improve participation in your AGMs:

  • Webcast – invest in a professional A-V company to assist with a broadcast of your event, so that members can log in with their membership number and password.
  • Communicate the agenda early and clearly – outline the motions put forward and allow members to ask questions in advance.
  • Create a formal process for executive nominations well in advance and allow candidates to campaign to membership – the business of spur-of-the-moment nominations for powerful positions often results in electing those who truly are not serious about the role.
  • Allow for proxy voting – members should not have to attend meetings in-person to cast their votes. Develop a system for online balloting.

Lastly – and this deserves to be separate from the bullets above – stop the practice of letting individual members invent rules and allowing them to push them through. Most associations comprise an Executive, a Board of Directors and a Music Committee. Just like a democracy, these three branches of elected and appointed experts are vested with the responsibility to monitor and adjust rules and policies. Just like your government, they make the laws, and they represent you. If you don’t like what they do, vote them out. But the idea of every rule-change being a membership referendum is, as we have seen many times, potentially dangerous. It allows personal agendas to be driven, as individuals, knowing that a small minority of members actually attend the AGM/referendum, can easily stack a vote by ensuring that a handful of cronies attend and vote with them.

Most piping and drumming associations pretty much operate the exact same way they did in 1947, 1964 or whatever long-ago-year they were started. Meanwhile membership numbers have exploded, revenues have grown, and the amount of time and money that pipers and drummers annually invest in this avocation beg for a more modern approach to government.

The gold ring

Ring toss.If you’re like most, your piping and drumming “career” depends heavily on the attitude of your partner towards your hobby-avocation-obsession. I’ve seen my share of players in misery, beaten down by an overbearing spouse who can’t appreciate that there’s more to their life than him/her. They’re “not allowed” to go to certain band practices, competitions or even glorious band trips. They tut-tut and tsk-tsk, and think of your bagpipe or drum as tantamount to you having an affair.

Screw that.

Ideally, as said before, you find a soul-mate who also plays the pipes or drum, or comes from a family of pipers or drummers. He/she already speaks the language of piping and drumming, and understands your affliction. These folks have hit the relationship jackpot but, sadly, that’s a rare situation. Most spouses at best just tolerate it and learn to live with the tension.

The erosion of a relationship can be a slow creep. I’ve seen pipers/drummers’ marriages start out all hunky-dory, their partner hanging out with the band, happily coming to competitions. But gradually things get rocky, and, instead of attending practices or contests, the piper/drummer is pressured to go shopping, or look after the kids, or even (shudder) stay home to do yard work or some other mundane thing. It can get very unpleasant.

But how can we recognize these incompatible people before we get in too deep? With a shout-out to the movie “Diner,” here’s a 10-question quiz that you can administer to your prospective life-partner in the early stages. Keep track of the answers, because at the end you’ll have to tally them to take an ultimate read of who or what you’re dealing with.

Good luck. This could be life-changing.

Our anniversary conflicts with the most important pipe band competition of the year. What do you do?
A) Call the pipe-major to tell him/her that I can’t make it.
B) Demand that I stay home to have a “cozy” night at home watching chick-flicks.
C) Recognize that my pipe band is a passion, too, and suggest we celebrate another time.
D) Invite yourself along on the band trip so that we can “make a weekend of it.”

I walk through the door after a three-day piping/drumming weekend, my uniform stinking of beer and vomit. Your response is:
A) Oh, my God, go somewhere else to clean up before entering my house.
B) It’s your turn to clean the house/take the kids, I’m going out.
C) So, did you have fun?
D) Silence.

My practicing woke up the baby, so you say:
A) How often do you really need to play that?
B) It’s okay, the little one will just have to get used to it.
C) The baby must have heard that missed D-throw in the third part.
D) Maybe we should we soundproof your practice room.

Feeling terrible, I call you to say that it was me who botched the attack in the contest, which made my band lose. Your response:
A) What’s an attack?
B) That’s okay; it’s only a competition.
C) Oh, wow, I’m really sorry that the band lost.
D) Which MSR was it?

I suggest that we have a piper at the wedding, so you say:
A) How much does that cost?
B) But I want a sweet violin sonata as I walk down the aisle.
C) Yes, let’s ask [best piper friend/family member] to play.
D) Do you think we can get someone really good?

I need a new suit for work, and I also need a new kilt for solo competitions, and we can afford only one. Your advice is:
A) Maybe you should get an extra job to support this piping/drumming obsession of yours.
B) Can you not wear a suit in competitions?
C) Get the very best kilt you can – it’s a lifetime investment, after all.
D) Maybe a great business suit will help you get that promotion so we can afford that new kilt.

You show up after practice with the entire band ready to party at your house. What’s your reaction?
A) Chain the doors and call the police.
B) Quickly hide all the breakables.
C) Run to the supermarket for ice and munchies – it’s going to be a great few days!
D) Call your friends to invite them over – in for a penny, in for a pound, after all.

I was away at a competition over the weekend and didn’t call or text you. You say:
A) Is it too much to ask that you call me to say you love me?
B) What, did you drop your phone in your pint again?
C) But I was dying to hear the result!
D) I was worried about you.

Who won the World’s in 1964?
A) The what?
B) How the &^%& should I know?
C) Why, the Edinburgh City Police at Ayr, of course.
D) Let me just check the pipes|drums Big Prizes database . . .

The holidays are approaching fast. What gift are you considering getting me as a gift?
A) Power tools so that you can finally install my new closet shelving system.
B) A “pass” that allows you to go to any competition you like.
C) Not sure, but I’ll ask your piping/drumming friends for suggestions.
D) A gift card for that other hobby of yours.

Now, then, let’s tally up.

For every “C” answer give yourself three points. These indicate that you’ve found an ideal piping/drumming spouse who understands the game and appreciates your passion. You’ll have no trouble with him/her as you merrily continue your avocation.

Score two points for each time you answered “D.” While these aren’t ideal responses, they do indicate someone with compassion and practicality, or who knows enough not to say anything, or takes an interest in what you do.

For each time you answered “B,” you can have one point. These answers are a bit insensitive and uncaring, but they indicate a minimal effort to understand your passion, or at least a sense of humour.

For every “A” answer score zero points. Even one of these horrific answers is an indication that you’re messing with a potential piping sociopath, so out of touch with who you really are, who will be nothing but trouble in the years ahead.

25-30 points = you have found the ideal piping/drumming soul-mate. Marry that person now, rest and be thankful.
15-25 points = definitely worth investing more time with. With training and gentle mind-melding, the right seasoning and a little more blowing-in time, he/she could be a keeper.
Seven-14 points = akin to getting the red light at the Northern Meeting: unnerving, and a serious sign that this just won’t be a good performance and even a breakdown could be a likely event.
Six or fewer points = uh-oh. You’ve got an enemy of piping/drumming on your hands. Either give the person the old, “It’s not you, it’s my pipe band . . .” speech, or steel yourself for a life of hen-peckery.

Of course, the mere act of having to administer this quiz would probably hasten the end of the relationship anyway, so if you’re even considering using it, you probably already know the truth.

Next: revised wedding vows for the piper/drummer.


Associations have no business re-grading non-members. In fact, doing so is counterproductive and throws a proverbial spanner into the delicate works of piping and drumming protocol.

The only association that I know that does this is the RSPBA, and every time it happens it results in needless confusion and ill-will. Some in the pipe band world have come to accept that the World Pipe Band Championships are the RSPBA’s “sandbox,” so they are free to do what they want. That is very true – except when it comes to re-grading bands.

The pipe band outside of Scotland world has become pretty sophisticated. The 10 North American associations and those in New Zealand and Australia have a clear grading system administered by those who monitor world standards and make recommendations based on their considerable knowledge. North American, Kiwi and Ozzie competitors who are members of one association often travel to events sanctioned by neighboring associations. Their grade at home is their grade on the road. As a guest, they must adhere to any different rules and policies, but they are accepted with a respectful understanding that they meet the minimum standard required to compete in the event.

There is reciprocity in grading across North America and, I am pretty sure, the antipodean associations. These groups have worked for the better part of the last 20 years to ensure commonality in standards and grading, as well as adjudication and rules. There are constant adjustments, and re-gradings are made using a map of the season as a whole, and never on just a single competition.

Re-grading a non-member guest competitor who played at just one event, without consulting the competitor’s home association, immediately undermines and belittles the association. It implies that the association’s sense of the standard is incorrect – a serious charge in today’s piping and drumming world.

If an association has a problem with a guest competitor that it deems is playing in the wrong grade, then it should work directly with the competitor’s home association first. If it is thought – after careful review – that a piper, drummer or band exceeded or didn’t meet the standard of the grade, then the competitor’s home association should be contacted. By simply expressing the concern of the association’s music board that a band or soloist competed in a grade that was above or below their ability, it allows for a more considered review and a lot less aggravation and acrimony.

The association and competitor can then consider their situation, take measures to correct or explain problems and then, in an equally diplomatic manner, report back to the association that expressed concern — should the competitor wish to return.

Ultimately, associations should deal directly only with their own members or the officials from other associations. To do otherwise is not only meddlesome and confusing, it’s disrespectful.

I don’t buy it

The commercial recordings of the World Pipe Band Championships are now being sold, and, as always, the performers don’t get a red pence for their work. Not a penny, dollar, punt, pound or centime for their efforts. pipes|drums has discussed the legalities of this at length, and brought the issue to the fore several years ago but, sadly, no progress has been made. Not a single word of explanation from either the RSPBA or the record company.

So, it’s time for individuals to stop buying the products and instead rip copies from a single source, and it’s time that the CD and DVD dealers stop purchasing from the record company and distributor. The reality is that every time we purchase these products we in effect take money out of the pockets of the artists who deserve – by law – their fair share. It’s simply not right.

It’s most remarkable to me that we all perpetuate the problem by turning a blind eye. Every off-season there’s some hue and cry from the bands that the practice ignores performers’ legal right to negotiate compensation, but as the days creep closer to the summer and the World’s itself the protests dwindle for fear of rocking a competition boat.

So I figure the only way to trigger change is not to purchase the products. If you’re desperate to hear these recordings, invest instead in software that will allow you to record the BBC’s streamed video so that you can play that original content again and again. (At least the BBC doesn’t charge anyone for the content.) Or, if you buy a copy of the CD, upload the content to a music file sharing site for all to take freely.

Once and for all, let’s stop buying these for-profit products until a legal agreement is reached with the performers. Until then, we’re just adding to the problem.

Tapadh leat

Just about all of the recent Grade 1 pipe band comings and goings have been much better communicated to the outside world by the bands and people directly affected. Without going into private and tawdry details, they have been clear and honest with a direct eye to the future. And most have a common element: saying thanks.

I’d imagine that some view these statements of thanks as being insincerely politically correct. Wrong. Plain and simple, saying thanks shows good manners and common sense.

Traditionally, pipers and drummers are often pitifully poor at thanking people. Ours is generally a volunteer-driven hobby, reliant on the skills of those who step forward to commit their talents to some common goal and good – in their spare time. It’s all very well when helpful and talented pipers, drummers, judges, administrators, executives and stewards provide their time, but when they decide to step aside or retire, we so often forget the simple act of saying thank you.

I have noticed that associations are often particularly poor at saying thank you. Often piping and drumming societies and associations are so busy just focusing on the here-and-now that they forget about how they got to the here-and-now – through the voluntary efforts of committed folk.

I have often said that the competition-laden culture of Highland piping and pipe band drumming teaches us to suspect the worst in one another. We often tend to view most things rather cynically: suspecting ulterior motives in others even when they don’t exist. At the heart of what competing pipers and drummers do is simply music and fun. They want to enjoy a tune and hang out with others who desire to do the same. That’s pretty easy to understand.

What’s a more difficult leap is understanding that those who serve with associations as stewards, judges, committee members and executives are doing so because they want to make things better, because they want to contribute to a common good. We mistakenly think they’re volunteering their time for some perceived personal gain, rather than the common truth: that they’re working for you.

Often when I write something like this a few people (ironically cynical, here) ask, “Who are you talking about?” With this I can say that I’m thinking of no one or no organization in particular, but the worldwide culture of piping and drumming as a whole. The general view of those who volunteer is often jaded, even within the associations themselves. It’s no wonder that those who volunteer for association roles are few, since they’re all too often simply cast aside and forgotten without even acknowledgment – let alone thanks – when they’re done.

So, we should all take a cue from the more genteel trend that seems to be happening within pipe bands, that simply saying, “Thanks for all your contributions, your commitment and your time,” goes a long, long way.

Gold Medals and Scottish society

The unfairer sex.That we’re even talking about how remarkable it is that a female piper has finally won a Gold Medal at Oban or Inverness is more interesting to me than the milestone itself. Faye Henderson by all accounts deserved to win and was a popular choice among her fellow competitors and, to any solo piper I know, that’s crucial to satisfying one’s sense of accomplishment, and that’s really all that should matter.

But the traditions and mores of Scottish piping are long-held and, to those not part of their culture, it can be difficult to understand. Generally and relatively speaking, change is often slower to be accepted there.

Henderson’s win has resurrected the discussion about the Royal Scottish Pipers Society voting in 2008 to continue its tradition of being a men-only club. There are plenty of men-only and women-only and whatever-only clubs in every walk of life. By definition a “club” is restrictive and exclusionary. The complication, of course, is that members of this club of male “amateur” (read: not very good) pipers still judge top-level competitions, and so have a controlling stake in the UK solo piping scene.

Whether or not these RSPS judges are fit to pass accurate judgment on pipers who can play circles around them is perhaps less galling than is the perception that they might be predisposed towards male competitors. They’re part of a club that rejects female members, so making that leap isn’t so huge.

While women have competed in piping competitions forever, they’ve been allowed to participate in the Northern Meeting and Argyllshire Gathering only since 1975. These events are connected with “societies” – that is, upper-crust clubs for those of a certain pedigree, vocation or income-bracket similar to the Jolly Boys that comprise the RSPS. I don’t know much about the Highland Society of London beyond its Wikipedia listing, but I note that it’s made up of “Highland gentlemen resident in London,” and perhaps this sponsorship and tradition also had or has something to do with no woman winning their coveted prize until now.

We all like to think that the prize lists are fair. At least in associations outside of the UK there are sophisticated judging accreditation and accountability systems designed to create a degree of assurance that the competitions will be well assessed. If there’s a question of fairness, there’s a mechanism for addressing it.

But how many female pipers over the years have played well enough to earn a Gold Medal, only to have it denied because they didn’t get the benefit of the doubt? And we all know that, when it comes to the top piping, drumming and band competitions, the benefit of the doubt – splitting hairs based on personal preference or predilection – can be the difference between first and fifth.

Perhaps now everyone can just get on with it and once and for all stop pigeon-holing competitors as male or female, Scottish or not, white or not-white, military or civilian, rich or poor, Catholic or Protestant, Mason or not, and assess the music only with fairness, competence and objectivity.

No ask; no tell

Not Bob Nicol.The late great golf teacher, Harvey Penick, used to say something like, “Don’t give advice unless you’re asked.” Of course he was talking about golf, and the habit of some hacks who aren’t much better – or even far worse – than their playing partner of telling them what they’re doing “wrong.” Try moving your feet apart. Your grip looks bad. You’re taking your eye off the ball . . .

We face these irritating people in piping and drumming all the time. You’ll have finished your competition performance and some know-it-all will come up and start telling you what’s wrong and what you should do to fix it. Often these officious folks will be rank amateurs who couldn’t play their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Sometimes it will be busy-body professionals or judges, and they’re just as annoying.

The rule of thumb in piping, drumming and pipe bands should be: don’t offer your opinion or advice unless you’re invited to do so by the performer. If you break that rule, no matter who you might be or how good you are, you’re really just a dink.

I remember coming off the boards at the piobaireachd at Crieff games one year and practically being accosted by a famous teacher-judge-Claspy-piobaireachd-guy. He was almost breathless he was so anxious to tell me everything that I did “wrong” in my performance. I bit my tongue and let him bloviate at me, but I really wasn’t listening, much less interested, in his opinion. “Who the *%&# asked you?” was all that I was thinking.

There’s a famous story of a young Bill Livingstone who was similarly confronted at a Scottish games in the 1970s by Bob Nicol, half of the Balmoral Bobs. Nicol apparently ranted on at him about how dreadfully unmusical and “wrong” his tune was. Nicol, who was perhaps accustomed to Scottish pipers just politely accepting his unwelcomed counsel, was reportedly stunned and mystified by Livingstone’s response: “Well, that just fries my ass!

Judges are asked to provide their opinion of a performance via a scoresheet and/or the final result. Beyond that, they have no real business arrogantly lording unsolicited advice at competitors. No matter who you, it lacks tact.

It’s simple: Unless you’re asked, keep your advice to yourself.

The hardest grade is 2

Sticky.History demonstrates that the most difficult pipe band grade is Grade 2. I’m not talking about winning (although that’s hard, too); I’m talking about long-term survival.

This year – in North America, anyway – we’ve seen the demise or apparent demise of no fewer than three Grade 2 bands. Midlothian Scottish, Niagara Regional Police and, most recently, the Hamilton Police all seem to be belly-up. Also fairly recently we’ve seen Grade 2 bands exceed in the grade, get promoted to Grade 1, and then eventually crumble or recede back into Grade 2.

While many Grade 2 bands may have had a lengthy history before dissolving, their struggles to maintain and continue might be harder than bands in any other grade. If you consider that most pipers and drummers’ ultimate goal is to play with a successful Grade 1 band, the pressure on a Grade 2 band to hold on to personnel and keep things glued together is enormous.

And now with pressure on Grade 1 and 2 bands to field a pipe section of at least 15 quality players to have a fighting chance, it’s even harder. A Grade 2 band might have a feeder system, but often the best pipers from Grade 3 bands leapfrog Grade 2 to get to the premiership. And the days of sticking it out with a Grade 2 band, resolutely waiting for or dreaming for years about when the band might go to Grade 1, seem to be all but over. Grade 2 players increasingly just don’t have the patience or loyalty. (Those who do are to be admired, and eventually they will become known for their dedication, commitment and principles.)

There are exceptions, of course, and the obvious example is Inveraray & District. But there, too, time will tell if that band can withstand the pressures of Grade 1, especially when the group comprises so many young members, some of whom will inevitably go on to college and university or move away. But placing ahead of House of Edgar-Shotts & Dykehead in an event in your first competition is a very good start, as nothing maintains a band like winning.

And of course there are Grade 3 bands continually moving in to Grade 2 (see Aughintober, Howard Memorial, Killen, Linlithgow, Penatangore, Stuart Highlanders, Williamwood . . .) but they, too, will face the extraordinary pressures of the grade.

I’ve said before that Grade 2 is, perhaps ironically, the most entertaining and competitive grade. There bands have the ability to stretch out their creativity with a lot less risk, and generally there are far more bands than Grade 1 that have a realistic chance of winning the contest. Just my observation, but personnel in Grade 2 bands also seem to have more fun – maybe because they know it might not last.

The solution? There probably isn’t one. I think that perhaps limiting the roster numbers of Grade 1 bands would help the world pipe band scenes, but that’s unlikely to occur until the RSPBA does it first. Besides, the pressures of Grade 2 didn’t start when Grade 1 bands began fielding pipe sections of more than 20; but they did seem to get worse.

Today maybe the best way to survive as a Grade 2 band is not to be a Grade 2 band for long. The bands that can race through the grade in one, two or, at most, three years, and carry the winning momentum and enthusiasm into Grade 1 may ultimately be the only bands that endure.

Image that

You're great. No, you're great.Most famous pipers and drummers have very few photographs of themselves. I know this to be true because of the struggle it almost always has been over the last 22 years to get images from interview subjects. Digital cameras are changing that but, still, older luminaries generally produce, if we’re lucky, a handful of blurry snaps, often of them in a crowd or playing in a band – slim pickings to support these in-depth, multi-parted features.

You’d assume that the opposite would be true, at least with pipers and drummers whose fame was gained mainly through solo competition. I can’t think of many things that are as self-centred as solo competition, since the whole point of the exercise is to be noticed, liked and rewarded by others. I’m not criticizing it, and I competed in solo events for a long time (and may yet again), but the reality is that chasing solo prizes is a total naval-gazing, narcissistic, self-indulgent conceit. No one except you much cares where you rate in the prizes.

And the irony doesn’t stop at a lack of photos. I find that the majority of pipers and drummers are loath to draw attention to themselves. They generally prefer to hide, and not discuss their experiences or success, much less take pride in their prizes.

Why is this? Maybe it’s due to a Scottish tradition of pious humility, but the last thing most pipers and drummers want to be accused of is self-promotion. Those who do are accused of wearing the proverbial fur coat and nae knickers. There are great exceptions (and, again, that’s okay with me) whom we won’t name here, but marketing does not come easily to the majority of us.

Things are slowly changing, though, and I think we can credit the non-Scottish influence for a rise in marketing and promotional prowess or, at least, willingness. Self-promotion is perhaps more culturally acceptable to Canadians, Australians, Kiwis and, certainly, Americans. Consequently, piping and drumming is coming out of its shell, albeit at the pace of tortoise.

As an American learning not just piping, but the culture of piping, I realized that one does not outwardly promote one’s self at the risk of being accused of trying to curry favour. One sets expectations low, and humility and not a little self-flagellation is generally in order at competitions. Those who come off the boards gloating about how well they played are doomed to fail, either when the prizes are announced or in their fellow competitors’ eyes.

But back to the photo-deficiency of famous pipers and drummers. There are only a scant few images of, say, John McLellan, Dunoon, or Willie Lawrie or Roddie Campbell. From that era, we generally can thank the military for the photos that do exist. Granted, cameras and photographs were relatively few and expensive then, but I tend to think that these humble pipers would have few pictures of themselves today, even if they had an account on Facebook.


When I was maybe 14, after attending a piping summer school (or “camp” as the kids often refer to them now), I was told by an instructor (from the Brown-Nicol Camp) that “that” Kilberry Book of Ceol Mor was complete rubbish, and that only the Piobaireachd Society Collection would do.

Well okay then. I loyally relayed this information to my parents, who, as ever, dutifully did whatever was needed for their child and found the money to secure the 13 separate PS books (all that were published at the time). This was an expensive proposition, but they did it anyway. Not only that, but after a year of carting around these separate volumes, they got them professionally bound in one of those hulking tomes that I’ve used since

Today, a complete, 15-book, bound PS Collection costs about $500. They’re occasionally awarded as a prize at amateur piping competitions like the Sherriff Memorial, and I’ve heard competitors say that the big book is to them even more valuable and practical than a prize chanter or set of drones. The bound collection I received (complete with Angus Nichol’s calligraphic dedication) for winning the MacGregor Memorial way-back-when remains a treasure.

I understand from the president’s message that the PS books aren’t selling well these days. It’s not surprising, since people are used to a more a la carte approach to music. Most people I know download from iTunes just the track that they like, and not the whole CD. When it comes to bagpipe music, they generally either go to to snag that tune they specifically want, or get a photocopy from a friend if the tune was published eons ago in Ross or Edcath. They should buy the whole collection but the reality is those people have been in the minority for decades now.

The thinking applies to the PS books: why buy a $25 Book 12, full of stuff you’d rather not hear, let alone play, when the only tune you really want is “Lament for the Harp Tree”?

If the Piobaireachd Society really wants to further the playing and accessibility of ceol mor, it would 1) offer the tunes individually, 2) make the music available online in pdf format, and 3) provide it for free.

The Piobaireachd Society could still offer its printed books or the entire, bound Collection at a break-even price. That’s fair. But perhaps it’s time the society also made the non-copyright music available in electronic form as part of its membership, or even free to everyone and anyone who wants it. Seems to me that that would foster the organization’s fundamental goal to “encourage the study and playing of Piobaireachd” like never before.

Getting an edge

Kiss it goodbye.What is it about age and nerves? When you would think that doing stuff would get easier as you get older, it gets more difficult. Anyone older than 30 marvels at kids who seem to have no inhibition or anxiety at all.

Skiing the other day for the first time this season reminded me of the fearlessness of kids. Even children who are novice skiers plow down the hill seemingly without regard to anything but fun, while the experienced adults take every precaution to ensure things are just-so before heading down the slope. My nine-year-old daughter, still only just getting the hang of keeping her skis parallel, was eager to take on a(nother) black diamond run with me. Persuaded to share something marginally less steep, she nonetheless zoomed past, laughing all the way.

Judging solo competitions you get a clear view of anxiety’s relationship with age. Most of the kids come up with hardly a thought about failure, and occasionally seem so aloof to the whole business that you wonder why they’re even doing it. Not a care in the world. Meanwhile, some adults routinely quake in their brogues, visibly trembling as they struggle sometimes to . . . just . . . get . . . through . . . it.

Nearly five years ago I blogged about “performance enhancing” drugs, and former Major League Baseball player Mark McGwire’s recent admission that he took steroids and human growth hormone to help his career along reminded me of it. (Unfortunately, the many comments to that post aren’t viewable, since when the blog moved to a new platform there was no way to import them to the current system.)

Whether nerve-calming beta-blockers actually enhance a piper or drummer’s performance is debatable. For all but a freakish few, a major part of the piping performance challenge is controlling one’s nerves, and, in general, the older you get, the better you become, and the better you become, the more pressure you put on yourself to live up to expectations and standards. Obviously there are unmedicated pipers and drummers who know how to control their fear, and being fearless is all about being confident, without feeling the need to prove anything to anyone.

Slumps are common in sports, and they’re surprisingly common in competitive piping and drumming. A lot more common than purple patches, anyway. As that great St. Louisan, Yogi Berra, said, “Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical.”

I’m not sure how many top players take prescription beta-blockers. I can’t recall anyone in the game actually admitting to it, so I’d imagine that there could be a perceived stigma to it, as if it’s performance enhancing or “cheating.”

Or is it?

Yes comment

Sting like a sharp B.So 72 per cent of pipes|drums readers feel that those who post comments to articles should put their true name to them. I’d guess that most of those who make up that 72 per cent are people who don’t generally post comments, since everyone can provide their real name.

Online publications struggle with this. I haven’t seen any newspaper or magazines sites that allow comments also require that commenters provide their real name. It’s interesting, though, that major newspapers and magazines diligently check to ensure that the writer of a letter-to-the-editor in their printed version is truly the author, and would rarely allow a “name held by request,” much less a pseudonym.

It’s a quandary. It’s still all about dialogue, but it’s also about credibility. Some would say that they don’t pay attention to comments made by people who don’t include their true name, but what about a public meeting? Unknown people stand up to make valid comments all the time, and folks still listen, don’t they?

It’s all about the subject matter and the delivery. Piping and drumming used to shout down or ignore dissenting or unpopular views by sweeping them under the rug until they went away. That’s changed, mainly due to new mechanism to exchange ideas without fear of reprisal.

I’d love to authenticate every comment to every pipes|drums story before enabling them, but would wonder whether 1) it would dissuade people from commenting, and 2) take too much time for too little return.

Also, I haven’t studied it, but have a feeling that a much higher proportion of pipes|drums commenters put their name to their post than is true of forums. I’m pleased every time that highly credible people like Bill Livingstone, Alistair Dunn, Donald MacPhee, Duncan Millar, Jim Kilpatrick, Bruce Gandy and many other famous folks have no trouble backing their frequent comments with their name.

Just like more mortal pipers and drummers try to imitate their playing, I’d hope that people also emulate their sense of integrity.

Enemy lines

Up to the line and under the ice.I’ve noticed a lot more cross-band friendliness over the last decade. In fact, it seems that competitors in most competitive genres no longer get too worked up over rivalries – not like they used to, anyway. I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing or a completely ambivalent thing, but it is a thing.

Thirty years ago I know that Major League Baseball players (here he goes again with the baseball) would hardly speak to one another. Back in the 1970s and even ’80s a guy would get on base and he wouldn’t even acknowledge the opposing team’s infielder. This was serious business. They were the enemy, and professionalism then meant you don’t consort with the other team. In fact, you’d punch them out given half the chance.

Same with pipe bands. There was a time when members of other bands would not be allowed in your band hall, the scores for the music were secret and you were quite sure that the competition had horns under their hats.

I heard the other day that an established Grade 1 band had the pipe-major and leading-drummer of a top Grade 1 in for a weekend workshop. A few weeks ago someone with more than 40 years pipe banding experience told me that he recently felt uncomfortable when a young member of a rival band sat in and listened to his practice, oblivious to the old-school etiquette when years back you’d have told the kid to Get tae . . .! before he could even sit down.

What’s caused all this Milquetoast laid-backness?

In pro sports, the age of free agency and big contracts has meant that a player staying with a single club for his/her entire career is rare. This year’s opponent might well be next year’s teammate.

So too in pipe bands. Where once it was common for a player to stay with the same band for 20, 30 even 40 years, today it’s extraordinary. The erosion of pipe band loyalty has been bemoaned for a few decades now. Robert Mathieson discussed the loss of loyalty in his interview, accepting the migratory attitude of modern players as simply the way people do everything these days.

I don’t know. It still irks me to see ballplayers yucking it up at first base during a close game, just as it seems strange when I see blatant camaraderie between competing band-members. But perhaps the Facebook generation has learned, thankfully, that life is too short for such trifles.

Touchy subjects

Not a few pipes|drums readers have contacted me about the recent p|d Poll question, “Should full-time bagpipe-makers be allowed to judge pipe band competitions?” Other versions of the bagpipe-makers-judging query have been posed before on the Poll over the years, and it’s of course a hot topic. Always has been; always will be – even if some sort of rule(s) were established to address the matter.

Several readers coyly wanted to know what prompted the question. That’s an easy answer, of course: the results of the Grade 2 competition at the 2009 Scottish Championships last week.

Bob Shepherd was the ensemble judge of the Grade 2 competition. He makes bagpipes and chanters. (I played one for several years and still play a Shepherd reed that’s been going strong for more than a decade.) Shepherd’s reputation as a judge, teacher, pipe-major and all-round remarkable person precedes him.

For the most part the two piping judges seemed to agree on the placings of bands. The band that won the contest, Inveraray & District, had two firsts in piping, a first in drumming, and an eighth in ensemble from Shepherd.

Now, I was not at the competition so I of course didn’t hear Inveraray. I also have no idea what make of chanters or bagpipes or drums or reeds the band plays. For all I know, the band did something horribly wrong with its ensemble. I don’t really care.

But thanks to the RSPBA’s publishing of all judges’ marks, we know that Inveraray received a 1,1 (piping), 1 (drumming) and 8 (ensemble) scoring. We can also see that Seven Towers had 8, 9, 9 and 1; MacKenzie Caledonia received 12, 19, 11 and 3; and Central Scotland Police got marks of 17, 16, 15 and 2.

So, the question was posed in the Poll, causing concern with a few people (several from bagpipe dealers), as if asking a simple, albeit sensitive, question were taboo in the world of piping and drumming. Many other tough questions also have been posed, and many new ones are still to come. Bring them on; let’s get things out in the open so that we can gain better understanding.

I suppose debating touchy subjects is still unthinkable with some old-school folks. There is something of a tradition in our art that prefers to sweep things under the rug rather than discuss them in the open. pipes|drums rejects that tradition. Only by asking questions will we ever get answers.

The reason that tough questions are traditionally not asked elsewhere may be because many people seem to have an interest in not asking them; sweep it under the rug and leave well enough alone. pipes|drums doesn’t sell anything but subscriptions and advertising, and those funds are plowed back into the publication or given to worthwhile not-for-profit causes, so I think we might be more free to evoke constructive conversation about sensitive issues that have been unaddressed for decades.

I’m interested to hear what others think about bringing sensitive matters that have existed for decades, even centuries, in piping and drumming out into the open.

(By the way, the last time I looked, the answer to that particular question from 74 per cent of respondents was “No.”)

A request: please keep any comments on the subject of discussing sensitive topics. Anything off-topic won’t be posted. Thanks.

Worth a song

Copy that.A friend of mine the other day said that at his daughter’s solo singing competitions every competitor is required to present to the judges original scores of the song he/she is to perform. That is, not photocopies or handwritten things, but actual published and purchased sheet-music.

Here’s a rule of a vocal competition that I found:

Upon arrival at the festival, two copies of performance selections must be provided for the clinicians. The use of photocopies is forbidden. Photocopies of permanently out of print material must be accompanied by a letter of permission from the publisher (or legal copyright holder).

Solo light music piping competitions are generally assessed from memory, and occasionally someone will provide sheet music of an obscure tune. But I would say that, at least in my experience, there are four or five competitors in every light music event who play something questionable, leaving me wondering whether the piper got it wrong or is just playing a different version.

Providing scores might avoid those doubts, but, perhaps more importantly, it would help our own publishing industry if competitors, as with serious vocal competitions, were required to present actual purchased published manuscripts in order to participate. It would mean that all pipers would have to purchase collections, and not rely on photocopies and scans.

If it’s good enough for serious singing contests, shouldn’t it be good enough for us?

Turn and face the strain

The pipes|drums Polls have been going on for more than a decade now, and they’re all archived here. It’s sometimes a challenge to think of something new, and readers have saved my mind-blank more than once with a good suggestion. I always look forward to seeing the results. Even though the poll isn’t scientific, I’m pretty sure that the results are at least reflective of the overall opinion of the world’s pipers and drummers.

The recent one that asked “How many times should a person by allowed to change bands in a year?” brought another surprising result, with some 56 per cent of people saying that they feel that pipers and drummers should be permitted to switch bands only once in a year.

Time was when changing bands was a fairly major event. As is the case in major team sports, it’s now rare in the pipe band world to find people who spend their entire career with one band. But over the last decade especially the idea of competing in the off-season with a band in the other hemisphere has taken hold with some. Pipers and drummers from New Zealand or Australia might compete with a UK or Canadian band at the World’s, just as folks from the northern hemisphere might hook up with an Antipodean band for their championship, as was the case at least week’s New Zealand Nationals.

It’s all perfectly within the rules. I’ve played with bands that have benefited from such guest players, and I have no particular stand on the issue. But, it appears that a majority of pipers and drummers do. By limiting a person to only one transfer in the year, it means that the back-and-forth approach would be difficult to manage. Once a player changed bands, that would be it for the next 12 months.

If such a rule were enacted, I wonder how it might change things. Would it make the pipe band world more loyal or less fun?

Saner heads

His beak can hold more than his belly can.Several years ago I judged a band competition in Ontario and was faced with a situation that most adjudicators dread. In fact, it was the first contest in which I was on ensemble, having gone through the accreditation process the previous spring.

It was the Grade 1 competition, which consisted of three bands. All of the bands played well. It was a medley event, and Ontario rules state that bands must submit two selections, and draw at the line with the ensemble judge present for the one they should play.

One of the bands came to the line, clearly wanting to get on with it because it was a scorching day. The pipe-major reached into the bag, and pulled out the #1 chip. In Ontario, the content of the selections is printed on each score sheet, the tunes being provided by the band with its entry. But because of a database glitch, the selections were reversed on the score sheet for each band, so the one that the band thought is #1 was printed as #2, however bands were made aware of the issue. So, the content of the #1 selection was really printed on the score sheet as the #2 entry. In essence, a band drawing #1 would have to play #2.

As the ensemble judge, I reminded each pipe-major at the line of that discrepancy. But this one band’s pipe-major was clearly in a hurry, and turned to start his group without realizing the reversal and that I was pointing out the other medley on the score sheet. Strictly speaking, the band played the wrong selection and thus a rule was broken . . . sort of.

Immediately after the band played, the judges got together, and we discovered that we all had noticed the band’s “error.” What to do?

We quickly agreed that we would go ahead and judge the entire contest as we would if there were no problem. We also agreed that, after that, we would alert the head of the Pipers & Pipe Band Society of Ontario about what occurred, since, ultimately, any penalty would be an Executive decision.

As judges, we made a recommendation to the President, which was to tell all of the bands what had happened, and allow the competitors to decide what they’d prefer to do. If the band at fault wanted to give up its prize, then they could do that; if the other two bands preferred not to move up a place for such a shallow reason (a move that we thought was likely), then that was fine, too. But it had the potential to be an ungodly embarrassment for everyone involved. Was it really worth it?

To my surprise at the time, the PPBSO president decided not to do anything. He was willing to let sleeping dogs lie, feeling that, even though a rule was broken, it made little sense to us to crack down on it. It just wasn’t worth the certain ill will. The band that made the mistake didn’t appear to do it intentionally. The PPBSO was also at least partly to blame because of the database problem, swapping the medleys on the score sheets.

I’m reminded of that situation because of the current issue with the RSPBA’s “international” judges being suspended. Just like any organization, the RSPBA has a right to enforce its rules strictly. If the rule is that sample score sheets must be provided from a judge’s home association, then so be it.

But, like the situation I described above, is it worth it? Ultimately, does it make sense to doggedly follow a rule that was broken due to any number of faults – chief among them, perhaps, resting with the association itself? Yes, an organization’s role is to enforce the rules, but leadership’s role is to determine when exceptions are warranted.

Some will no doubt feel that the band should have been disqualified, just as some will think that the RSPBA did the right thing. But I learned from that awkward circumstance at that competition that, every so often, punishing people for breaking a rule can in the broader scheme of things do more harm than good.

Sometimes, those who suffer the most when rules are rigidly enforced are the competitors and the art, and it’s better to quietly sort things out behind the scenes and just get on with it for the good of all concerned.

Digging a hole where the rain gets in . . .

I buried Paul!The current news of the RSPBA’s handling of “international” judges has captured the interest of pipes|drums readers. And why not? The competitive pipe band world (at least the non-Breton one) has been built on the Scottish model.

Over its history, the World Pipe Band Championships (Cowal pre-1947 included) were pretty much the same thing for more than 50 years. There was little growth and change in size or playing standards. Probably at least 95 per cent of the entrants were from Scotland. The rise in pipe band standards in the Commonwealth countries just happened to coincide with the availability of relatively cheap jet travel, so non-UK bands gradually gravitated to Scotland to test their mettle.

There is little argument that the expansion of the World’s is due to the influx of “overseas” bands.

I still think that the RSPBA – even three decades in to this crazy expansion – still doesn’t know what’s hit them. They have not adapted well to this change, and, some would say, have even tried to resist it, even by putting it down.

The City of Glasgow has figured it out. The National Piping Centre has figured it out. Piping Live! has figured it out. Why the RSPBA hasn’t is difficult for many to fathom. Thousands of people are saying, “Here, please take our money. All that we ask in return is a fair shake.”

Even when things have not been perceived as fair (e.g., recording rights, judging representation, threats of suspension to top overseas bands and judges), non-UK bands have still come, hoping that maybe, just maybe, this year things will be different. I wonder if the latest action – or inaction, as the case may be – is the final straw. One senses a groundswell. There’s a very angry mob that might have had just quite enough.

But I think that there is an element who feels, “Fine, stay home if you don’t like it. It’s our contest, so you’ll play under our rules, and we will set those rules as we see fit.” It’s as if they would be perfectly happy to return to 1965.

The current pipes|drums Poll is revealing. At the moment a total of 14 per cent have said Yes to the question “By suspending international judges, has the RSPBA done the right thing?” Of course, 86 per cent feel that the RSPBA made the wrong decision. If we look at the data behind the entries, countries of origin can be counted.

Responses from Canada are a tiny 3 per cent saying Yes. Those from the USA are higher, at 8 per cent. Australia is in line with the average, with 14 per cent responding Yes.

But, the UK response is a very different story. Some 35 per cent of responses from the UK support the RSPBA’s decision. While that’s far short of majority, it’s way above the average and miles more than the Canadian opinion.

There’s a massive divide that may not be possible to bridge. Could this be the end-of-the-tether for many bands? Will the RSPBA be able to dig itself from the hole that it’s dug? The next few months will tell the tale.

Can touch that

Strange bedfellows.Watching the Grammy’s last night, I really liked all the “mash-ups” with artists. Al Green and Justin Timberlake and Keith Urban. Jay-Z with Coldplay. And of course the unlikely pairing of Alison Krauss (bluegrass) and Robert Plant (Zep) winning Album of the Year.

All that and Kid Rock’s adapting Lynyrd Skynyrd’s sacred “Sweet Home Alabama” riff and assembling a new song’s theme and lyric around it got me thinking of course about pipe music.

If it’s okay now in pop music to mix-and-match tidbits of songs and styles, then why not pipe music? It’s traditional that pipe music composers never-ever-never borrow from what’s gone before. If a new tune sounds even remotely similar to something else, let alone replicates an entire phrase, then it’s crapped on, pissed over and consigned forever to the garbage pail. The “composer” is often tagged as unoriginal and may never live down the label.

But why not take the Oasis route, and readily admit that, yes, they borrow heavily from the Beatles? A decade ago the Gallagher brothers took a “So what? We love the Beatles, so we like to sound like them” open stance. Couldn’t the next step for creative pipe music composers be one of adapting or reprising phrases from well know tunes and putting them into a new context?

It goes against our unwritten and heretofore sacrosanct law that new pipe music must always be 100% original, but, so what? Is there anything wrong with a great composer like, say, Bruce Gandy or R.S. MacDonald echoing a snippet of “The Little Cascade” (to use a random example) and admittedly integrating it into a new composition? A new composer could give full credit to G.S. McLennan or even a living composer, negotiate royalties, and start something new and fresh by adapting something old and familiar.

When pop music artists first started sampling the work of others and integrating the bits into their songs (remember the rancour between MC Hammer and Rick James over “Can’t Touch This” and “Super Freak”?) it was met with controversy and lawsuits. Over the last 20 years, though, composers like Lynyrd Skynyrd have learned that it’s usually a good thing when a current artist wants to resurrect your music in something new. Not only does it rekindle interest, but it also makes you money. It’s all good.

I think that could be a really interesting experiment. Perhaps our tradition of stringently adhering to the all-original all-the-time rule of composition should be relaxed. Can’t we borrow from, echo and give credit to the past, and still be creative, adventurous and respectful?

Sincerely, Anonymous

Would Mary Ann Evans have been as successful had she not written under the name 'Mary Ann Evans'?Ever since the newfangled Internet machine was first applied to piping and drumming way back in 1994 with the (truly sordid) chat group, our little world has been frequently miffed and confused about those who speak publicly, but wish to remain anonymous. Forums, blogs and an online magazine like pipes|drums give everyone the power to speak their opinion, and choose whether or not they want their true identity to be attached.

It frequently frustrates those with a high sense of integrity. Pipers and drummers who have the courage and conviction to put their real name to what they say in public often get into high dudgeon when they read the pointed and controversial – and often just simply muck-raking – opinions of posters using pseudonyms.

Of course, the piping and drumming world is not unique in this regard. Have you ever visited a major newspaper’s online edition? Take the New York Times, Scotsman or Evening Times, for examples. Readers are allowed to post anonymously, and even publications considered the most reputable in the world welcome dissent, agreement and everything in between, provided it’s fair comment and not slanderous or libelous.

pipes|drums takes that stance. The thinking is that it’s far better to open the discussion to all – anonymous or not – than to have no discussion, which, as the major dailies understand, is pretty much what would happen if every reader’s identity had to be verified and listed before anything was posted. Web 2.0 discussion is not like traditional letters-to-the-editor, which are closely vetted for authorship and veracity. That’s not a conversation at all, but instead just a one-time rejoinder.

The piping and drumming world is far more open today than it was 15 years ago. Results are openly debated, competition requirements are openly critiqued, the moves of associations are subject to open criticism. We discuss musical issues like never before. While a group of judges may condone a new musical approach, the players of the world may hate it, and vice versa. This lively and open dialog and debate simply did not happen before 1994.

There are still some places where they still seem to try to sweep sensitive matters and clear injustices under the rug, but that approach will eventually catch up to them when they discover their membership has turned on them, and it will be ugly.

As long as it’s not slanderous and is “fair comment” (don’t ask me to define it; I just know it when I see it), then opinions should be welcomed, whether it’s on the Internet or at an AGM. It’s understandable that we pipers and drummers are reluctant to put our names to strong or unpopular opinions. We compete in subjective competition system built on years of slow-moving musical custom and tradition. Rocking the boat may alienate those in charge (executives, board-members, judges, teachers, stewards . . .) who usually don’t like to be criticized, and who theoretically have the power to put down any uprisings they deem not in their interest. And some still do.

Fortunately, even with the preponderance of anonymous commenters on the Net, there are always the true courageous leaders with a conviction to confront the piping and drumming world’s “authorities” and its traditions and mores, unafraid of being identified. It takes integrity and guts to take on the establishment, especially one that’s so entrenched and used to being able to control the players, whether it’s through threat of disqualification, a clipboard hammering or simply creating a century of piobaireachd settings that everyone has to play just so if they want to get a prize.

That sort of abuse of power is unfortunately how the competitive piping and drumming world often operated for its first 200 or so years – until the Internet came along, giving power to everyone and anyone to espouse boat-rocking opinion without revealing their identity.

Similarly, from time to time pipes|drums is criticized for using sources who speak on condition of anonymity. This is a long-established practice still used by any credible publication. Essentially, an anonymous source enables a publication to include sensitive third-party opinion that otherwise might get someone into trouble, whether it’s with a criminal, a business, a political regime . . . or a pipe band association. Readers of The Times, to use that example again, trust the paper’s long-established credibility and integrity to report honestly. When the publication uses an anonymous source, readers have faith in the journalist’s professionalism to use that content truthfully.

pipes|drums often puts together predictions and honours. It started years ago as fun and innocuous features, but some people apparently take them extremely seriously. I guess that’s a credit to the publication’s integrity, or perhaps people are just so bored that they have nothing else to talk about. Rather than me single-mindedly choosing these things, I far prefer to stay out of them altogether. So, the approach has been to assemble panels of experts from various areas, and invite them to vote and contribute their thoughts, with assured anonymity.

I would love to announce grand panels of named experts, just as I would love everyone to put their true name to their comments on pipes|drums, and will try to convince people to agree to that when the time comes.  But, unfortunately, my feeling is that the real, subjective world of competitive piping and drumming still makes it impossible to require the inclusion of true identities and still have an honest dialog.

I’m sure some who pine for the old days would prefer no dialog at all to allowing anonymous contributors. Again, looking back at the sweep-it-under-the-rug mentality that pervaded the pre-Internet era, we are far better off to allow intelligent pipers and drummers to provide their intelligent and fair comments anonymously than to say nothing.

Judgment calls

Kill the ref!Accusations of bias run rampant throughout our particular brand of piping and drumming. The more focused on competition the piper or drummer is, the more it seems he/she thinks everyone has an agenda to promote, hidden or not.

Over the last few decades of putting together publications for pipers and drummers I have had a fair share of accusations of bias thrown at me: I’m a piper, so therefore I must not like drummers. I have played in a few bands; thus I must be promoting them. I play piobaireachd, so I’m suspected of disrespecting those who don’t. I live in North America, so therefore I must be anti-UK. I reside in Canada, therefore I’m anti-American. I live in Ontario, so some from other provinces assume they don’t get fair treatment. It’s all about Toronto . . . I have a bias against those not living in the west end of the city . . . I’m against shorter people . . .

And so it goes. I’ve dealt with the (usually anonymous) accusations by just continuing to do what my heart tells me is right, and creating the kinds of publications that I think people want to read. That’s all it ever was and ever will be. Readership keeps increasing, so I have to assume I’m doing something right.

By profession I work in public relations. I understand that, from relationships, people can do more good things. It follows that I generally approach people I know – those I’ve played in bands with, grown up with, competed against, received instruction from – to contribute articles, as long as I know them to be fair-minded and I respect their opinions and intelligence. It helps me when they express an interest in writing. Nonetheless I’m always delighted when people I don’t know contact me with an idea for an article they’d like to see or contribute, and over the years some of my favourite stuff has resulted from just such unplanned contact. (See Willie Donaldson.)

I try my hardest to be fair and objective when it comes to content on pipes|drums. I’m aware of accusations of bias, but I guarantee that I have no other agenda to promote than providing a publication that as many people as possible will enjoy. No one likes propaganda. There are times when I catch myself almost overcompensating, thinking I shouldn’t include articles that truly merit publication because a small minority of cynically competitive readers will suspect me of bias.

That was the dilemma I faced with the recent New Year’s Honours story. The overwhelming feedback from the panel was that the Spirit of Scotland – based on news value – should be named the Band of the Year, and that Roddy MacLeod – based on overall contributions to the scene – deserved to be Piper of the Year. Uh, oh, I thought. I’m in SoS, so what will people think if they’re named?

But, ultimately, I did the right thing and gave those that deserved the accolades – under the conditions of the system for determining the honours, whether that system is good or bad. In the meantime I tried to grow an extra layer of thick skin, but fully prepared to accept any fallout.

It’s the same predicament that a good judge finds him/herself in. The very worst judge is one who overcompensates and doesn’t award a prize to a deserving competitor for fear of being accused of bias. Our system is such that we truly respect only the opinions of people – judges, teachers, magazine editors, and association leaders – who have also done the business as competitors and performers, who understand the vagaries and challenges of competitive piping and drumming because they have experienced it. Those who talk a good tune have little credibility. Consequently our judges, teachers, editors will always be accused of bias by some, simply because their history as a player is known and there for cynical connections to be made.

Good judgment sometimes requires an element of self-editing, making sure that you do the truly right thing when you’re tempted to overcompensate and do wrong. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.

On second thought . . . no, I don’t . . . but I will anyway.

Tuning folk

Speak with forked tongue.I haven’t read a full copy of the digest, the Piping Times, for at least a decade, but when there’s a (usually mean-spirited) bit pertaining to pipes|drums or (rarely) me personally, people are prone to alert me to it, even though I’m invariably not interested. I gather there was something pertinent recently, and a few folks took it upon themselves to make sure that I knew about it . . . many thanks . . . I guess.

Ironically, Rab Wallace, the current Editor of the monthly, in the early 1980s said to me, “If you haven’t been slagged by Seumas, you haven’t made it in piping.” He was talking about Seumas MacNeill, the co-founder of the College of Piping and editor for almost 50 years of the aforementioned digest-sized periodical. Rab didn’t come up with the axiom himself;  I remember him quoting someone else.

In 1987 I took great delight when Seumas, in his report of the Northern Meeting, wrote that I must have “the worst tuning-notes in the business.” To my relief, he didn’t comment on the tune that I played, since he was apt to save his worst slagging for that. So, I figured that I might have finally made it as a piper when the Famous Seumas simultaneously let me have it and let me off the hook. MacNeill had a sharp but always entertaining pen.

“Ouch!” one pipes|drums reader said in a message alerting me to the reprint of the 1987 comment, in what I hazard to guess was a new attempt at a taunt. In fact, it it served as a pleasant reminder of a time when everything was a new adventure. I also know that “making it” as a solo piper requires a lot more than a MacNeillian barb.

Anyway, it also reminded me that, while it should have sweet FA to do with the result, what’s played while tuning is part of the overall performance. In 1987, I didn’t put much thought into tuning phrases and the like, and simply wanted to get the instrument in tune, which more often than I’d have liked didn’t happen. When I’m on the other side of the table, it’s irritating when a piper comes up at the tail-end of a 20-plus-competitor piobaireachd event and screws at his/her drones with an eternity of gibberish notes and no apparent game-plan. It does indeed set the teeth on edge, as Seumas wrote 20 years ago, and more than a few times the performance that I remember first after an event is someone playing interminable airs and things and never actually tuning an instrument, that would probably never stay in tune anyway.   

I have learned, though, that there is usually a correlation between pleasant tuning and tuneful performances. Those who have put thought into their tune-up, almost always have put a lot more thought into their instrument and their music.

Competitive instinct

Competition wins . . .The interview I did with Donald Shaw Ramsay nearly 20 years ago is one of the most memorable – perhaps for the wrong reasons.

 The legendary former Pipe-Major of Invergordon Distillery and Edinburgh City Police pipe bands just happened to be on an August, 1989, flight from Glasgow to Toronto, and I was returning from the World’s on the same plane.

I didn’t know Ramsay, and only had seen photos of when he was a much younger man, but someone recognized him and pointed him out to me. I boldly introduced myself to the great Ramsay in the departure lounge, told that I put together a piping magazine and asked if he would be interested in passing the travel-time with an impromptu interview. I had heard that his favourite subject was DSR; thankfully, he was all for talking about himself for a few hours.

I can’t remember why I had a tape recorder with me, but I did, so we agreed to meet on the plane. He had an aisle seat in economy. A nice lady agreed to change places with me, so I sat across the aisle from him, and, in between passings of bladder-bursting passengers and trolley-pushing attendants, we chatted on tape. It was an exciting interview, and I was thrilled to get the chance to speak candidly with the famous man.

A few weeks later, once the interview was transcribed, I was in for a shock. I sent (back then, by post) the proposed final text to him, only to get back a marked-up version of which entire sections, and maybe even whole pages, were deleted. It was as if he couldn’t even remember doing the interview, and, sure enough, a year or so later I was told by someone who knew him that he claimed he didn’t realize the conversation was being recorded and that he claimed he never agreed to an interview. Bizarre.

But, back to the editing process . . . When I received his edited version I called him up to discuss it, since deleting major chunks of a lengthy article inflicts havoc on the planning of a printed magazine. Among the passages he wanted excised were hundreds of words of insightful and helpful advice to up-and-coming players and pipe-majors.

Totally confused, I asked him why he would want to remove that material. He replied with, something to the effect of, “I had to learn the hard way, so why should I make it any easier for others?”

I couldn’t believe it then, and the comment remains one of the most amazing things I’ve heard. I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to understand why, at age 65, he would not want to help others by passing on some of his knowledge.

Perhaps there were other reasons for such a strange decision, but I tend to think that it was because Ramsay, like so many pipers and drummers, was so competitive that he just couldn’t see past the feeling of possessing some insight that he wanted to keep from the competition.

I was reminded recently that the ultra competitive piping and drumming world remains just so today. I often ask the leaders of today’s top bands to share their knowledge. Thankfully, the large majority are more than pleased to do so. But still very occasionally I get a DSR-like response from those who just can’t overcome their competitive instinct, and would rather take their knowledge to the grave than share it with “the competition.”

Full up

As a precocious (read: naive) 14-year-old, I was encouraged by Gordon Speirs, who gave me lessons at the time, to play with a top-grade band. Gordon had no shortage of chutzpa, sometimes verging on the bombastic, and he didn’t seem to think that it mattered that I’d been playing for only three years and was from the (then) piping-nowhere of St. Louis.

Gordon thought that I and another piper from The Loo should go to Scotland for a summer. He said, “Muirhead & Sons needs pipers. I’ll get you Bobby Hardie’s number, and you can call him up.”

And he did, and I actually called the legendary Robert G. Hardie, and gave him the pitch.

I can’t remember if my parents even knew what I was up to, and I’m sure they would have quashed such a cockamamie concept before they even would agree to pay for a long-distance call. In my heart, I knew that the idea was absurd, and I think I secretly wished and expected that Hardie would say no.

No, indeed. I remember Hardie on the other end of the line letting us down gently. After politely listening to our warped reasoning, Hardie said, “Sorry, but I think we’re full up at the moment.”

“Full up.” Gordon had said that Muirheads was on the ropes back then in the late-1970s, suffering from declining numbers. Hardie had been taking in pipers from Canada in particular who committed to playing with Muirheads for a year or so, and these folks included very accomplished guys like Scott MacAulay, Michael MacDonald, John Elliott and Hal Senyk. When it came to nonentities from nowhere, Hardie I’m sure just couldn’t be bothered with such a thing.

I doubt that there’s a Grade 1 band today that would say that they’re “full up” for pipers. “Traveling” band-members are common in most upper-grade bands today, and some even have the majority of pipers and drummers coming from a long way away.

From what I understand of the Band Club Sydney, many of its members travel from far outside of Sydney, even other continents. It looks like the band’s sponsors grew weary of not being able to field a band for functions, so want the group to go in a different direction.

The idea of “community” I still think is important to a typical band’s identity. (I say “typical” because a band like the Spirit of Scotland, which I play with, is based on the unusual premise of assembling far-flung members for periodic flings.) A pipe band that practices, performs and competes throughout the year ultimately needs to have a place that it can call home. It’s important that the band contributes to that community, and it’s essential when the band features a city in its name.

The Band Club shake-up may well be the beginning of the end of the never-full-up ethic of accepting players from wherever. It’s a short-sighted approach that often results in few members truly sharing in the satisfaction and camaraderie gained from winning.


Hmmm, a new piping rag has arrived in the snail-mail. Let’s read the report of this competition that happened three months ago and that everyone has already discussed ad infinitum on the net, watched videos of, and has already said every conceivable thing there is to say . . .

Plonker & District – good uptake to march. Good going here. Top hands a bit iffy in reel? Don’t like the tom-tom tenor drumming. Not my cup of tea. Crap.

Lumberyard & Son – what are they thinking with that opener? Not enough cane in those drones. Squeals hurting this band. Should get new chanters and reeds. Couldn’t smell any seasoning wafting from the circle. Crap.

Bloomers of Cardenden – not as good as I’ve heard them before. Tempi not like I used to play them in 1979. Didn’t like the tartan. Did I see the pipe-major hitch up his bag? Crap.

. . . and so on. That’s a slightly exaggerated parody, but this sort of absolute dreck has been the bane of piping “journalism” forever. It goes on today, even in these supposedly more enlightened times. I said this before, but it’s worth remarking on it again. For some strange reason people think that it’s okay to crack on our very best competitors after the competition is done, as if people can’t listen to the whole thing on the net and judge for themselves. As if anyone even gives a toss what the writer thinks about the competition as a non-player / non-judge.

What’s worse is that these bitter reports are usually by people who haven’t played in a decent band for decades, or been asked to judge a decent band competition, or, I would guess, even been asked to join a decent band.

Not on pipes|drums. Ever.


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